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Homeland security-money debate: Secrecy vs. accountability

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Ask any New Jersey politician, and you're likely to hear a familiar refrain: The Garden State isn't getting its fair share of federal money allocated for homeland security.

Why? You'll probably be reminded of New Jersey's proximity to New York City and the 9/11 attacks, that a building in Newark received a terrorist threat, that the country's most densely populated state is an inviting target for terrorists.

What you won't get is a detailed account of how the state has spent millions on homeland security, and why the purchases were necessary. To some, it's frustrating logic: The government won't disclose how it's spending the money for ... security reasons.

"There are certain things we don't want public, like if a county does not have a certain number of response vehicles — that could be a potential vulnerability," said Roger Shatzkin, a spokesman for the state Attorney General's office. "We think we do a responsible job but there's a limit to what we can disclose. We cannot detail everything publicly."

State and federal officials say there are safeguards to make sure states aren't asking for homeland security money they don't really need. Shatzkin cited a pre-approved equipment list, reviews by the state attorney general's office and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and another review after municipalities and counties submit reimbursement receipts.

In addition, every state has a "preparedness officer" who oversees how officials spend money, according to federal homeland security spokesman Marc Short. The officer assigned to New Jersey asked not to be identified or quoted for this story.

Taxpayers For Common Sense, a private watchdog group based in Washington, agrees New Jersey could be a prime target for terrorists. But it maintains that should not prevent officials from disclosing how federal anti-terrorism money is spent.

"This is about security, but this is also about giving your voters an understanding of what their government is doing for them," said Keith Ashdown, the group's vice president of policy. "And when something leaks out ... it really spoils the reputation of your whole spending."

He pointed to Newark spending $300,000 in federal homeland security money to buy two air-conditioned garbage trucks.

The Justice Department said it approved the purchase because the trucks would be needed to remove debris in the event of a terrorist attack. But garbage trucks are not among homeland security's long list of approved items that can be bought with its federal money. The two agencies separately dole out grants to states.

Three Republican state lawmakers cited Newark's garbage truck purchase as a signal that tighter controls are needed on how homeland security money is spent.

The controversy could have been avoided if the purchases had been made public when the Justice Department approved Newark's request to buy the trucks in 2003, Ashdown said.

However, an executive order issued in August 2002 by then-Gov. James McGreevey allows counties to keep secret their documents concerning security measures.

Civil libertarians are frustrated about such secrecy. New Jersey's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has gone to court asking that the state's attorney general make public records regarding homeland security money.

Deborah Jacobs, the ACLU's executive director in New Jersey, said in order to apply for federal DHS grants, municipalities had to list at least 15 suspect groups or individuals considered potential terrorist threats.

Jacobs says the state's refusal to disclose homeland security information flies in the face of New Jersey's Open Public Records Act, which was revised three years ago to make government more transparent.

"On one hand, our state Legislature was saying we need a more open government, but on the other hand, the state government and the attorney general's office in particular has proven itself more secretive than the federal government," Jacobs said.

New Jersey has spent its homeland security money wisely, Short says, pointing to Morris County as an example. The densely populated county, home to major corporations such as AT&T, Schering-Plough and Nabisco, has used some of its federal money to buy four decontamination shelters costing about $340,000, said Scott DiGiralmo, a deputy coordinator for the Morris County Office of Emergency Management.

The tents are equipped with sinks and showers emergency workers can use to rinse off and special suits that allow them to be tested for chemical exposure without having to disrobe in front of strangers, DiGiralmo said.

The county also spent more than $400,000 to buy respiratory masks for all of its law enforcement officers and emergency service workers. The masks are made of softer material than gas masks, making them easier for people to put on, DiGiralmo said. The masks give people 30 minutes to get out of a contaminated area.

While details about purchases are usually kept secret, many New Jersey lawmakers, led by acting-Gov. Richard J. Codey, have been lobbying for more homeland security money.

Codey said he hoped a recent simulated bio-terror drill in New Jersey would bolster his case.

"This is a great investment in manpower and resources to show that New Jersey is among the largest at-risk states," he said.

In fiscal 2005, New Jersey is to receive $37 million in federal homeland security money, down $19 million from the $56 million it received in fiscal 2004. Newark and Jersey City also are expected to receive a combined $13 million less in fiscal 2005 through a federal grant program for the 50 high-risk cities that sent them a combined $32 million in the prior fiscal year.

State officials say the $19 million reduction means they will have to get by with fewer radios for police and firefighters, will not be able to build field hospitals, and won't be able to conduct necessary training of first responders.

Short says New Jersey has gotten its fair share of money. Still, Codey and other state officials say the state deserves more.

New Jersey officials were not pleased to learn that New York City is to receive an increase in its homeland security funding of nearly 300% in 2005.

"There is no area that lives in the zone of danger more so than New Jersey," said state Attorney General Peter Harvey. "New Jersey and New York have to be viewed as a single region because the terrorists certainly don't distinguish between the two.

"The '93 bombing of the World Trade Center was planned in Jersey City and executed in Manhattan," Harvey added. "Fifteen of the terrorists from 9/11 traveled through New Jersey to board planes that destroyed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. So the threat is ever present in New Jersey."

Since Sept. 11, American taxpayers have paid $13 billion in resources and anti-terrorism grants for state and local governments, Short said.

"Often the expectation (by states) is that the money will continue to increase and I think that's an unwise assumption," he said.

Congress mandates that the money be allocated by risk, and "data drives that determination," such as threat information, a level of investigative activity into that information, critical infrastructure and population density, Short said.


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